The country turning riberry, emu and green ants into fine dining fare

Given that Australia’s indigenous population thrived for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, it would be logical to assume the country’s native plants — known as bush food — would have long featured on restaurant menus.

Not so.

For decades, most chefs avoided ingredients like mountain pepper, quandong (a wild peach) and wild rosella, and instead favored European and Asian ingredients to that of the land they were cooking in.

A selection of native Australian bush foods.

Courtesy of Ayers Rock Resort

Part of the problem is price: salt bush can cost $20 per bunch, and quandong can be $0.50 per berry. Others include supply, seasonality and storage challenges. Customers are also to blame. Educating Australia’s dining public and the restaurant industry about bush foods has taken time, even with authors like Vic Chernikoff taking on the role for decades.

That groundwork has finally paid off. Native ingredients now feature prominently on menus of high-end restaurants across the country as part of a $20-million industry that’s growing rapidly.

Ochre Restaurant

Location: Cairns

Along the Harbour Lights boardwalk in a city best known for being Australia’s jumping-off point for trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Craig Squire overlays native ingredients with regional fare to create dishes like emu wantons, green ant gravlax and wattleseed pavlova.

As the owner and chef at Ochre Restaurant, Squire’s passion for using native Australian ingredients began in the late 1980s. At that time, he said Australian cuisine was mostly dominated by “boring” international cuisine.

Ochre Restaurant uses bush foods in desserts too, like this mousse made with native Davidson plums and lemon myrtle.

Courtesy of Ochre Restaurant

“Seeing and eating the unique cuisines around the world — and how even from region to region in Europe cuisine styles and ingredients change — I knew we had to do better in Australia,” said Squire.

He later opened Adelaide’s Red Ochre Grill “where we went full bore into using native ingredients, the first restaurant in Australia to do so.”

“It was a great discovery — and in those early days, so creative,” said Squire, who added that using bush foods makes him feel like a true Australian chef.

Ayers Rock Resort

Location: Northern Territory 

Dining in the open air under the night sky is memorable regardless of the menu, but the four-hour Tali Wiru dinner at Ayers Rock Resort takes memorable up a notch.

The Tali Wiru dinner highlights bush tucker (or bush foods), the native herbs, spices, fruits, seeds, insects and wildlife that indigenous Australians have been eating for tens of thousands of years.

Courtesy of Ayers Rock Resort

The experience starts with sunset and champagne in the sand dunes overlooking Uluru (Australia’s famed monolith), before feasting on a bush food-laden menu that includes ingredients like locally-foraged spinifex (a spikey grass), freeze-dried finger limes, quandong and lemon myrtle, the latter referred to as the “queen of the lemon herbs.”

Attica

Location: Melbourne

A meal at Attica means the chance to taste rare ingredients, as the award-winning restaurant boasts chefs who are bigger fans of bunya nuts than beef.

Attica’s black ant lamington is served with bush apple sorbet with pepperleaf ice cream and comes coated in coconut and black ants (left); a wattleseed bagel is topped with emu liver parfait and Davidson plum jam (right).

Colin Page | Attica

Attica is one of the most celebrated restaurants on the entire continent, and the introduction of bush foods to the menu was a huge leap forward for native ingredients that have struggled to find footing among a wider audience for years.

If you can get a table — waiting times of three months are not uncommon — expect items like hand-picked crab, bagel slices with emu liver and for dessert, Attica’s famous black ant lamington.

Restaurant Orana

Location: Adelaide

Scottish-born chef Jock Zonfrillo has worked hard to give the indigenous culture a voice through food.

The world noticed.

This dish of kohlrabi, lilly pilly (a flowering evergreen tree), lemon myrtle and dorigo (a peppery leaf) is one of 16 courses on Restaurant Orana’s dinner menu.

Courtesy of Restaurant Orana

The high-end dining experience at Orana has won a series of accolades, including Australian Restaurant of the Year in 2018. Zonfrillo also won a Basque Culinary World Prize that year, worth over $100,000, for his work with native Australian communities through the Orana Foundation. He is investing 100% of the money back into the indigenous community.

At least 40 seasonal indigenous ingredients feature in the 16-course tasting menu (or a modest 10 courses for lunch) including wattleseed miso, crocodile with Australian botanicals, bunya nut cream cheese and Geraldton wax (flower) with green ants.

Botanic House

Location: Sydney

Tucked within Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, celebrity chef Luke Nguyen marries Asian cuisine, including that of his Vietnamese heritage, with native Australian ingredients.

Sydney’s Botanic House marries Asian and bush ingredients.

Courtesy of Botanic House

The result: combinations like wok-tossed warrigal greens with ginger, garlic and sesame oil or a plate of grilled king prawns with housemade XO sauce paired with saltbush (a blue-gray shrub) tempura.

The tasting menu is a good way to work your way through some of the menu’s best items. Some of the ingredients come straight from the gardens surrounding the restaurant, such as the lemon myrtle that he infuses into coconut milk to marinate fish from the local market.

Wildflower

Location: Perth

Cooking seasonally is now commonplace, but restaurants rarely follow the six seasons of the indigenous calendar. It’s another reason dining at Wildflower, located on the rooftop of Perth’s Como The Treasury hotel, is worth more than one visit.

Expect plenty of fish and seafood in the hottest part of the year, an abundance of fruits and yams after periods of rain, and fattier red meats like kangaroo and emu being offered across a number of seasons.

Room to grow 

The introduction of bush food into the menus of some of Australian’s best restaurants is a great start, but there are still issues.

While the public has embraced the flavors, the payoff isn’t reaching the indigenous growers, with only 1% of supply being produced by them — an issue the inaugural National Indigenous Bush Food Symposium set out to tackle in November 2019.

The rosella and lychee petit gateaux on the Tali Wiru bush tucker menu at Ayers Rock Resort.

Courtesy of Ayers Rock Resort

Chefs are also working on reversing the trend. Chef Zonfrillo from Restaurant Orana is helping indigenous populations to find warehousing and iron out supply fluctuations.

And Attica’s Ben Shewy purchases ingredients like djarduk (a bumpy red bush apple that the restaurant juices and makes into a sorbet) from companies like Maningrida Wild Foods, which works with local families in remote parts of Australia who wild harvest the fruit to generate income.

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